Shelley White’s journey

Our classmate Shelley White has been the Director of Litigation and Advocacy at New Haven Legal Assistance Association (NHLAA) since 1987. She supervises and co-counsels the systemic advocacy work of NHLAA’s attorneys, litigating before the District Court for the District Court of Connecticut, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Connecticut Supreme and Appellate Courts, on behalf of low income clients and groups.

Among the cases she has worked on at NHLAA are Christian Community Action v. Cisneros (federal court challenge to historical segregation of public housing in New Haven); Shafer v. Bremby (federal court class action challenging delays in the processing of Medicaid applications; settled with strict deadlines and monitoring); Rabin v. Wilson-Coker (federal class action challenging failure of state to provide additional assistance to working families losing eligibility for Medicaid based on income); Hilton v. City of New Haven (state court action seeking a state constitutional right to housing in Connecticut); and NAACP v. Housing Authority of the City and Town of Milford (joint litigation with United States Department of Justice challenging municipality’s efforts to rescind partici­pation in a scattered site public housing program funded by HUD).

Shelley and her colleagues at NHLLA.

She is a member of the faculty for Affirmative Litigation Training for legal services attorneys conducted by the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law in Chicago. She currently serves on the Board of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center and previously served on the Boards of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project and the ARC of Southington. She also serves on the Local Rules Advisory Committee for the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut. She is a Life Fellow with the James Cooper Fellows Program of the Connecticut Bar Foundation.

Prior to working at New Haven Legal Assistance Association, she worked as an attorney for Georgia Legal Services, the Connecticut Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, and the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union (now the ACLU of Connecticut).

Q&A with Shelley… 

What motivated you to embark on a career in legal services?

Growing up in the 1960s, I was acutely aware of civil rights and civil liberties issues. I went to law school for the purpose of using the law to effectuate social change and ensure access to the courts by persons who are poor and marginalized.

Was there anything in your BC Law school experience that led you in the direction of legal services work or is memorable to you in any way?

I choose BC Law because of its many clinical programs, in particular the Legal Assistance Bureau in Waltham where I worked during both my second and third years of law school. This clinical program, then led by Professors Robert Smith and Mary Margaret Oliver, lived up to my expectations and made me glad I chose BC Law. The work at the Bureau helped me understand and appreciate the value of the academic class work and kept me motivated to keep working for my J.D. Mary Margaret Oliver had worked at the Georgia Legal Services program before joining the BC Law faculty and, with her assistance and mentoring, my first job was in the Douglasville, Georgia office of that program.

What impact has your work had on the judicial system or society in general?

Over the last 40 years, I have seen tremendous change in the perception of legal services attorneys. Through the individual and systemic work we have done for our clients, we are seen as colleagues and respected advocates by our peers in private and government practice and by members of the judiciary. Legal services attorneys now serve on state bar committees as officers of our state and local bar associations, which was not the case when I first started working as an attorney. I was recently appointed to the Local Rules Committee for the federal district court because the Chief Judge valued the perspective of a legal services attorney along with the perspectives of the private bar and governmental attorneys. It has been a wonderful opportunity for me to work with this committee.

The work of legal services attorneys, representing low income persons in family and housing courts, before administrative agencies, in our state and local legislatures, reflects a collective commitment that the law must affirmatively promote equity and justice.

Do you plan to slow down at all soon?

Probably not. Recent events have made the work of legal services attorneys critical. The legal services programs in Connecticut, including where I work, are being deluged with requests for help from immigrants fearing deportation and seeking paths to citizenship, who fear the loss of their work permits, their housing, and their access to education. We also worry about potential reductions to benefits such as rental assistance, food stamps, social security, and transitional aid for dependent children and the impact of such cuts on the poor and the elderly.

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